Saturday, May 2, 2009

Azrael's Mantle of the Bat

I never followed the “Knightfall” storyline when it came out in 1992, but recently ran across the graphic novel telling the story of Bruce Wayne’s fall as Batman and the rise of his chosen successor, Jean-Paul Valley as the new Batman. Created by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Joe Quesada, Azrael was an assassin for “The Sacred Order of Saint Dumas”, trained from birth to enforce edicts from this sinister secret society. The character first appeared in the mini-series, Batman: Sword of Azrael #1 where he was instructed by the Order to kill an arms dealer. However, when Azrael crosses paths with Batman, the Caped Crusader defeats and eventually helps Azrael break free of the Order and seek his own path fighting crime in Gotham. What I found most interesting about this story was the religious aspects of the character and his brainwashing the Order implanted in him, both genetically and through mental and physical conditioning. Called “The System”, this conditioning drives Azrael to have amazing super-human strength and skills, but at the price of some very deep psychological problems. Jean-Paul gets activated like a sleeper agent, only to discover he is taking over the very position his father had before him, from this society that has lasted for over five hundred years.

As well as the interesting backstory of the character, Azrael’s costume was a deadly combination of ancient armor and modern warfare with is striking gold and red bullet proof armor, gauntlets that had retractable daggers and a flaming “sword”, and other surprises to fight crime. His split personality activated by his donning the armor and extensive conditioning from “The System” often seemed to drive him to the edge of insanity, so who would be a better choice to become the next Batman. I never liked the direction comics were taking with the dark subject matter, excessive violence, and killing, especially with Batman, but it didn’t seem to bother me for a second Batman to be so disturbed, as Jean-Paul Valley became in the “Knightfall“, “Knightquest”, and “Knightsend“ trilogy.

It all started after Batman was crippled by Bane, Azrael takes up the Mantle of the Bat, but his prior conditioning makes him as vicious and ruthless as the criminals he is trying to defeat. Refusing help from Robin, and growing increasingly violent in his methods to be a better Batman than Bruce Wayne, Valley finally kills the criminal Abattoir, and in doing so, inadvertently his hidden hostage. When Wayne discovers Jean-Paul’s mental problems caused him to “step over the line“, he vows to take back his Batman identity. After extensive training and healing medications from Lady Shiva, Bruce returns to fight the technological advanced Batman in a final showdown on Gotham Bridge. Batman quickly discovers the only way he can defeat this new creation of himself is to trick Jean-Paul into removing the armor, which he does later when trapped in the Batcave, as Valley finally realized Bruce Wayne is the true Batman. Valley left Gotham and returned to the Order as Azrael, which ran in its own series for one hundred issues until his apparent “death” from a gunshot and high fall off a bridge into a river. But a character this important had to be woven back into the “Batman Family”, and was just resurrected with Azrael’s first appearance in six years just hitting the stands last month.

Over the two years it ran, Jean-Paul’s uncontrollable “System” modifications he does to Batman’s classic costume was the most enjoyable aspect of the new character for me. Starting slowly, he just had gauntlets of razor sharp claws and a high-powered grappling hook instead of gloves on the original costume. However, it soon evolved into striking blue and gray armor similar to Azrael’s outfit, but now with some wicked shuriken blades in the shape of bats that he fired at will from the gauntlets. Later he modifies the bat symbol into a search light, alters the classic cape into a multi-winged glider, adds a reinforced helmet with laser sites, and a surprising flame-thrower to his arsenal of deadly weapons.

DC Comics had a great collection of artist working on the series that ran through all the “Bat” books and a few other titles in the twenty four month Azrael-Batman storyline, but my favorite would have to be Mike Manley’s vision of the Dark Knight. His artwork was launched in Batman #500 as the new mechanical Batman finally defeated Bane, and later takes on other famous villains such as the Joker, Catwoman, Scarecrow, and Mr. Freeze. As well as Manley, artists Ron Wagner, Bret Blevins, Graham Nolan, and Vince Girrano were my chosen creators that all contributed their own different version to the new Azrael-Batman, with his ever changing and more dramatic costume.

Writer Denny O’Neil later stated that the entire “Knightfall” series was written to test the waters to see if Batman fans really wanted a more “ruthless” hero, that was popular in film and comics of the time. But fortunately, a hero willing to kill his opponents, was not in the cards, even as popular as the Azrael-Batman character had become. Fans of the series wanted Bruce Wayne back, dark, but not as disturbed as the creation born in the legendary “Knightfall” trilogy of stories.

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